Research as a common
I was Socrate’s master as well as Hypatia’s student. I wondered why apples fell while the moon did not, long before Newton proposed that they both did. I was Lavoisier’s better half and Darwin’s ship mate, Giordano Bruno’s publisher and the Curies’ assistant, Hardy’s collaborator and Leibniz’s rival, Einstein’s contradictor and Hobbes’ disciple, Freud’s patient and Arendt’s penfriend. I am the nameless reviewer who read your work and suggested a control experiment that led you to reconsider your model. I am this discussion around the coffee machine that you joined with your mind a shamble and left with two key parts of the puzzle assembled. I am the former adviser or the new colleague who encouraged you to test a daring hypothesis. I am the tricky question that drove you to push your thoughts further. I am the unseen hands that maintained the environment needed for your work. I represent the sum of findings that were cited by the authors you cited, the chain of thoughts that, seamlessly, gave way to your own. I will also be the scientists who later read, debate and use your work as a basis for theirs.
You who work in research know me of old. And yet, only last year did I start co-authoring your publications. You and I, who search for a living and often dedicate our lives to science, are fully aware of what our results owe to collective construction, to the timely collegial process that shapes the landscape of knowledge by accretion and erosion, seldom disturbed by earthquakes. Indeed, although genius is a convenient fiction, science relies on the strength of its probation process much more than on the personality of its enunciator; it would be nothing without a complete state-of-the-art and, above all, without disputatio.
However, in the past decades a myth has propagated, among our institutions and then among us, that research is essentially a matter of individual performance. Far from maintaining a healthy research environment where collegiality drives us ahead, production indicators that we are each expected to satisfy corrupt the quality of scientific interactions, and the fear of concurrence precludes sharing information and building collaborations so as to secure one’s own success. These enticements also constitute the primary cause of scientific misconduct due to the direct benefits of cutting corners.
Recent concerns on the multiplication of scandals for fraudulent research publications, or on the trend to wrap-up stories into “tabloid science”, descend from a strain that has been undermining trust in the principles upon which modern science was founded for years. The ethos of collective knowledge building and probation between scientists of various institutions and various countries has been replaced by a lust for personal branding, intimately paired with a desperate search for political and industrial leverage ensuring sufficient funding, in times when long-term public spending for research is decreasing in most OECD countries.
Such an evolution forsakes the legacy of critical rationalism — claiming independence of research from religious, political and economic powers — that the academic community has long adopted as its standards. This statement ought not to be too quickly dismissed as a dusty ideal; the highly positive view of science held by most of the public also stems from the assumption that scientists do follow these standards. Notably, citizens swiftly detect potential conflicts of interest. Henceforth, a growing number of them rejects a version of science that appears obsessed with catching attention, with gaining personal fame and funding.
This evolution also increases our dependence on non-scientific traditional media or social networks to excessively promote our publications. This shift of gratification from a legitimation acknowledged in the long run by the scientific community, towards an immediate recognition by the media, plays into the hands of political manipulators. Political instrumentation of science publishing here comes in two bitter flavours: on the one hand, driving research funding towards topics that match their immediate interests; on the other hand, luring public opinion with so-called “science-based evidence” into making decisions that engage society out of pieces of data that address only a fragment of a broader problem.
Surely, scientists alone do not have the power to remodel all social, economic and political constraints affecting their activity. But we do have a collective responsibility: it is our duty to state that we do not only reject fraudulent science. We also firmly oppose its structural causes, including our own growing mania with individual ranking, short-term impact factors and publication metrics insofar as they are no longer used as indirect measurements of how scientific fields evolve, but as tools of branding and intellectually destructive competition for resources.
The issue we raise is not totally overlooked. The world of scientific publishing is conscious of dangers, although it gets bogged down in a paradox since it depends on bibliometrics and altmetrics for maintaining its notoriety and securing profits. Research institutions are also mindful of the damage caused by fraud, but often forget that sanctioning ill-behaviour is insufficient when the systemic triggers of misconduct are ignored. As an attempt to tackle causal issues, the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) stands as a remarkable example of a world-wide public display of good intentions. However, we are left to judge these good intentions as hypocritical — or at best only half-hearted — as long as DORA signatories (research institutions, science publishers and academics) persist, in their daily practice, in promoting a research framework that rewards short-term visibility and individual success stories. Signing is not enough; we need acts.
The whole model, from funding, to publishing, to funding again, is deviating our path towards the atomization of the scientific collective habitus into a set of workers to whom bureaucratic and self-promoting activities take over research practice, reducing the latter to a sheer executing part. This loss of autonomy is further aggravated by a gradual blurring of frontiers between the science and business spheres. At all levels, “thinking in the box” has become the main message that institutions send to individuals, motivating them to quantitatively enhance their personal score as their only hope for a future. Accordingly, the division of scholarly work is commonly impersonated by the figure of the Project Manager who, instead of contributing to research, is in charge of conducting task forces — armies of assistants, hence of specialized, dependent workers who are sometimes treated as pawns and denied a brain, whether they are students, postdocs, or technicians on short-term contracts.
In sharp contrast, I — we! —, Camille Noûs came to life as a constant reminder of who we are as a research community, where we come from, which common values we share, and what principles we need to enforce for the sake of science integrity. Since March 2020, authors from all disciplines have freely and knowingly acknowledged our collegial contribution to research articles by co-authoring with Camille Noûs more than 200 publications. Thereby, they formally recognize the “we” (“nous”, in French) among contributors, together with the Greek “νοῦς” (mind, reason). Through this act, they are showing the way towards a re-appropriation of research publication norms by the academic community, which has been dispossessed of its own production too long.
Camille Noûs’ unifying character is here to embody a science that focuses on establishing elements of knowledge, protected from influences driven by self-interest. As such, we call researchers willing to enforce those basic principles to name Camille Noûs among their co-authors, both as a deontological statement and as a manifesto for the collegial way of doing research that we embrace.
I am not Camille alone. You are. We are.